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Facebook's Shaky Conceptual Foundations

Posted by Josh Rothman  November 16, 2011 08:46 AM

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Can a social networking service like Facebook really capture the totality of social life? That's their stated goal: Facebook aims to create a "social graph," a digital representation of all the social connections on Earth. Maciej Ceglowski, a prolific writer, programmer, and information architect, delves into the technical details to explain why this is impossible. Writing at the blog of Pinboard, an (excellent) cloud-based bookmarking service he runs, Ceglowski explains why social networking is a conceptually flawed idea.

The first thing to grasp, Ceglowski explains, is just how much the social graph leaves out. Ultimately, social sites like Facebook or Google+ are text-based; for each person in the network, there is a textual description of their interests and relationships, stored in some database on a server. That textual description, in turn, is based on an standardized list of possible relationships. Google+, for example, uses an open standard called XFN (XHTML Friends Network) to categorize its members; within XFN, Ceglowski writes, there's "a set of only about twenty defined relationships." Obviously, these twenty relationships are woefully inadequate if you want to capture the full complexity of social life:

To use XFN as my example, how do I decide if my cubicle mate is a 'friend,' 'acquaintance' or just a 'contact'? And if I call him my friend, should I interpret that in the northern California sense, or in in some kind of universal sense of friendship?... In the old country, for example, we have two kinds of 'friendship' (distinguished by whether you address one another with the informal pronoun) and going from one status to the other is a pretty big deal; you have to drink a toast with your arms all in a pretzel and it's considered a huge faux pas to suggest it before both people feel ready....

And of course sex complicates things even more. Will it get me in hot water to have a 'crush' on someone but have a different person as my 'muse'? Does 'spouse' imply 'sweetheart,' or do I have to explicitly declare that (perhaps on our 20th anniversary)? And should 'restrainingOrder' be an edge or a node in this data model?.... There's no 'nemesis' or 'rival,' since the standards writers wanted to exclude negativity. The gender-dependent second e on 'fiancé(e)' panicked the spec writers, so they left that relationship out. Neither will they allow you to declare an 'ex-spouse' or an 'ex-colleague.'

The complexity and ambiguity of social life means that there's no easy way to capture it in a discrete, textual description -- which, ultimately, is what a site like Facebook is. Words like "graph" and "network" obscure a damning simplicity. In reality, "the social graph wants to turn us back into third graders, laboriously spelling out just who is our fifth-best-friend."

There's a deeper problem too -- a sort of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of social networking. By painstakingly documenting the social world on a computer, you change the social world. It's a problem programmers first noticed since they first started experimenting with social software. "Documenting my huge crush on Matt in an XML snippet might faithfully reflect the state of the world," Ceglowski writes, "but it also broadcasts a strong signal about me to others, and above all to Matt. The essence of a crush is that it's furtive, so by declaring it in this open (but weirdly passive) way I've turned it into something different and now, dammit, I have to go back and edit my [XML] file again." The "social graph" can never be accurate -- it's always going to be a parallel universe of semi-fictitious relationships. This might not matter, of course, to the real consumers of social services -- the companies who pay for information about who likes what.

More at Pinboard: "The Social Graph Is Neither." A great read!

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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